Read what workforce management consultants Sharon Steed, Lily Zheng, and Shirley Davis advise as initial steps for firms striving to become more diverse, equitable, and inclusive.

Learn Through Listening

Sharon Steed, founder, Communilogue, Pittsburgh

Sharon Steed
Many organizations, leaders, and managers are understandably feeling overwhelmed at the moment. We all finally see how painful life can be for certain segments of the population. Several of my clients have expressed their hesitation, even fear, in confronting these topics: What if they say the wrong thing? What if they hurt someone? What if it isn’t enough?

The issues we are facing, however, don’t have to be intimidating nonstarters: They are opportunities to foster connection and drive inclusion, and architects are exceptionally equipped to tackle this challenging time in our history within the ranks of their firms. Architects not only understand their clients’ physical needs and wants, but also what is possible for a site, and what needs to happen in order to get it there.

Use this same approach to create an inclusive and equitable culture at your firm. The first step is learning through listening: Leaders need to initiate one-on-one conversations with employees about their experiences in their firm. Make sure each individual understands that their opinions matter and will in no way affect their employment. Ask them: Do they feel included? Heard? Like they belong? Listen to their stories without judgment, and try to internalize their struggle.

Make the most of what you learn by implementing changes to your hiring processes to increase diversity; using inclusive language to ensure everyone in the office can join every conversation; and elevating existing voices in your ranks who may feel like they have, or have actually, been silenced.

These conversations can be challenging and daunting. Bringing in outside help at the beginning of this process is OK. Consultants can facilitate these tough discussions as well as create a safe space for these conversations to flourish and guide your firm in long-term diversity, equity, and inclusion planning.

The rawness of the world right now requires those open lines of communication. When you begin to listen as an action, you will confront the brutal truth that your worldview has been very narrow to date. That’s OK: You are learning through listening.

Question Everything

Lily Zheng, diversity, equity, and inclusion consultant, Lily Zheng Consulting, San Francisco

Lily Zheng

Corporate culture is the implied and unspoken values, beliefs, and behaviors that represent a company’s identity and inform how employees should interact with each other and clients. Culture is embedded within office policies, processes, and expectations. Where does DEI come into this? Most firm cultures are designed, intentionally or unintentionally, to be most comfortable for their leaders, who are overwhelmingly cisgender, heterosexual, college-educated white men.

Fostering a culture of inclusion that welcomes women, people of color, LGBTQ+ people, working-class people, and other underrepresented minorities requires reimagination from the ground up. Here are the steps your firm must take, and the introspective questions you must ask all employees:

1. (Re)determine your company values, identity, and ethos.
“Who” is your company? Who belongs inside it? One powerful way to begin this exercise is to ask: “Who are we not?” Aim high. Should your company be a place for underrepresented minorities to work? Buy from? Why and how should it earn that reputation?

2. Unpack the assumptions at the core of your company and industry.
In design, for example, what stylistic approaches are accepted to be best? What is considered “normal” or “standard” within mainstream architecture education? What are the unspoken expectations for architects interacting with each other and their clients?

3. Identify how these assumptions embed themselves in common practices.
Do white men primarily interface with clients, even if they’re less experienced than other team members? Does your firm interact with certain clients more than others or pursue certain types of work? What holidays does your firm recognize? What amount of unpaid labor is expected from employees?

4. Explicitly rework assumptions and common practices to align with your ideal company identity.
What do design processes, expectations, and policies that support people of all races, genders, incomes, and social identities look like? How can you normalize these new aspects of culture?

Sustain Your Culture Transformation

Shirley Davis, president and CEO, SDS Global Enterprises, Tampa Bay, Fla.

Shirley Davis

Culture transformation has become a focus for firms that recognize it can make or break their brand reputation among customers and top talent. Culture can be elusive and invisible, yet it affects the productivity, engagement, creativity, and retention of employees, many of whom are demanding that our workplaces create a sense of belonging, be free from harassment, and—at the very least—be more inclusive and equitable. It can also affect bottom-line profits.

But changing culture is not easy, nor is it a quick fix, which explains why most efforts either fail or stall. What is the secret to transforming culture in your firm in a way that results in sustained success?

From my experience, I can attest that the clients who have succeeded at culture transformation all understood two things: First, you must implement a comprehensive and robust strategy rather than taking a short-term approach; second, you must make it every leader’s responsibility. Here are five steps to get started:

  1. Start with a culture audit to identify the current state of issues, challenges, and strengths, as well as opportunities and deficiencies both inside and outside of your firm.
  2. Integrate and align inclusive behaviors into your values, policies, and strategic plan to reflect the changing demographics in your talent pool, customer segments, and communities.
  3. Replace archaic belief systems that breed power structures through homogeneity, conformity, and hierarchy.
  4. Provide education and development for leaders and staff on how to work more inclusively and effectively across differences.
  5. Institute accountability systems that reward inclusive behaviors and reinforce your firm’s values.

Use these steps to begin the journey to transforming your firm’s culture. The process is not a sprint, but a marathon, and yet it must be approached with a real sense of urgency in order to achieve sustained success.

This article appeared in the August 2020 issue of ARCHITECT under the headline “What Are First Steps Toward a More Inclusive Workplace?”